Cremona is off the tourist radar and famous for making the world's best violins, but it also offers stunning architecture and some of northern Italy's best cuisine.
The city of Cremona, Italy in Lombardy is famous for its luthiers—makers of stringed instruments—who have been crafting high-quality violins since the 16th century. But it is also known for its beautiful medieval and Renaissance architecture, such as the Torrazzo, one of Europe’s tallest surviving medieval brick towers that houses one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks.
Cremona can be visited as a day trip from Milan (by car, it is 1 hour 20 minutes southeast; by train 1-2 hours), and it’s also a pleasant place to spend a few days.
Read on to discover this gem of a city—almost completely off the tourist radar—and its musical history.
What to see in Cremona, Italy
A good place to start your visit is the 13th century Cathedral bell tower called the Torrazzo. This tower stands at about one hundred and twelve meters (367 ft.) tall. On the front of the tower is the famous astronomical clock dating back to the late 16th century, decorated with intricate zodiac constellations. Climb the five hundred and two steps for a close-up look at the statues on the cathedral’s facade from the terrace, and fantastic views of the city, countryside, and Po River from the top.
A few tips before you go:
• Most of Cremona’s historic sights are around the main Piazza del Comune.
• Most sites & museums are closed Mondays.
• Driving is restricted in the historic center; park in the big lot just outside the center.
A Renaissance loggia connects the Torrazzo to the cathedral, or duomo, originally built in 1107 but destroyed by an earthquake just ten years later. The new one was consecrated in 1592. Inside is a beautiful fresco series of the life of the Madonna and Jesus. On the other side of the duomo is the octagonal Romanesque Baptistery of Saint John, built in 1167, with a marble baptismal font dating from 1527.
Across the piazza from the cathedral is the Palazzo Comunale, or town hall, dating back to the early 13th century. Inside, you can visit the decorated rooms, see beautiful art works, and browse the collection of historic violins from the 16th-18th centuries. If you’re lucky, you may get to hear one of them being played. The cafe on the ground floor is a good place to stop for a coffee at one of the tables under the portico with its 13th century frescoes. Or, if the weather permits, sit outside in the piazza and admire the cathedral and tower while people-watching.
Cremona is famous for its finely crafted violins, a craftsman and musical tradition that dates back to the 16th century. One of the first violin makers in Cremona was Andrea Amati, considered to be the inventor of the violin in the 16th century. But the city’s most famous violin maker was Antonio Stradivari, who produced more than one thousand string instruments in the late 17th to early 18th centuries. Stradivarius violins continue to be regarded as the best in the world today.
Cremona is still home to many violin makers’ workshops and has a luthier school. As you stroll through the city, look for signs that say liutaio to find violin makers—don’t be shy, peek through the windows to watch them at work! Cremona’s traditional violin craftsmanship is on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
To learn all about violins, visit the Museo del Violino in Piazza Marconi (closed Mondays). Inside the museum are excellent multi-media exhibits about the history of the violin and how they’re made. There’s also a large display of violins and other string instruments and an auditorium with a stage at the center, built to optimize acoustics for musical performances.
The Civic Museum Ala Ponzone-Stradivariano on Via Ugolani Dati 4 has a display of stringed instruments and artifacts from Stradivari’s workshop. It also houses paintings from the middle ages through the 20th century, ceramics, cathedral artifacts, and archeological finds including a large collection of coins.
The food and wine of Cremona
Cremona is at the center of the Po Valley, one of Italy’s top food producing areas. Sharp and aged Grana Padano, named after the Padana Plains, and provolone cheese are produced in the Cremona province as well as a special salami called simply Salame Cremona made from pork and a special cotechino, or pork sausage. A traditional dish that dates from the 16th century is marubini cremonesi, a meat-stuffed pasta cooked in a savory broth that’s traditionally prepared from beef, chicken, and veal. Mostarda di Cremona is perhaps Italy’s best known mostarda, or fruit preserved in syrup that gets a kick from powdered mustard seed and often accompanies the boiled meat dishes of northern Italy. Cremona is also known for its torrone, or nougat, a crunchy or chewy treat with almonds that’s celebrated in November at the Festa del Torrone.
To try Cremona’s traditional dishes and wines, I recommend Osteria La Sosta, near the main square, where we had an excellent dinner. They serve another dish dating from the 1600’s called gnocchi vecchia Cremona, which are large baked gnocchi stuffed with sausage. Another great option—an institution in the city by now, after being founded in 1913—is the Trattoria Mellini in Via Bissolati, where all the classic Cremonese dishes are served, listed not by menu but by the proprietor. On a chilly evening, the soups and stews particularly hit the spot.
The local wines that you’ll see served most often come from the nearby Oltrepò Pavese wine zone, where winemakers make fruity Barbera with hints of spice and sparkling Pinot Nero (white and rosé); or the Valtellina from up north, one of the few places outside of Piedmont where nebbiolo grows, though here it’s called chiavennasca. And it goes without saying, of course, that these wines will be your best bet for pairing with the dishes of the region. You can try these wines at most bars, osterie, and restaurants but if you’d like to taste at a winery, we recommend Castello di Cigognola, housed in a castle dating from 1212, about an hour’s drive west of Cremona.
Places to Go Near Cremona
Cremona makes a great base for visiting nearby towns in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna or taking day trips to Milan, especially if you prefer to stay in a smaller and less-expensive city. I stayed at Hotel Duomo, a nice 3-star hotel right in the historic center.
The beautiful Reniassance city of Mantova is about an hour east of Cremona and the often-overlooked city of Brescia to the north is even closer. The town of Pavia and its beautiful Certosa monastery lies an hour west of Cremona. If you have a car you can visit some of the castles in the area and explore the Oltrepò Pavese and Franciacorta wine regions.
Visit the wineries